What would happen if you took a group of middle-school boys from a tough, inner-city school district in Baltimore, and transplanted them to a boarding school in Kenya, in the middle of nowhere? That’s the question the Baraka program asked, and for seven years the program, funded by a private foundation, picked a group of boys from Baltimore public schools each year to enroll in the Baraka school. The boys accepted would get two years of free tuition, room and board in Kenya, in an environment where they had one-on-one attention from teachers for the first time in their young lives.
Filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing spent over three years chronicling the experience of four such boys: Devon, Montrey, and brothers Richard and Romesh - boys they came to think of as The Boys of Baraka. When I spoke with Rachel Grady on the phone for this interview, the thing that struck me most was the passion with which she spoke of these boys she set out to film, and ultimately befriended. The insight Grady has gained from working with the boys and their families, she says, has forever changed her perspective on life in our society, especially for poor kids growing up in the inner city.
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Cinematical: Rachel, let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you and Heidi to make a film about the Baraka school?
Rachel: We read about the school in an article in Newsweek. It’s so competitive looking for stories – inevitably when you stumble on something worth filming someone else is on it already. There were several other filmmakers wanting to make a film about the school. The Baraka School had been approached many times over the years – by then the school had been open for seven years. For Americans – for me – it was just so strange that children from the richest country in the world were going to the poorest country on earth to get an education. It was just extremely ironic.
Then we met the kids and that’s all I cared about .They were the best characters I’d ever filmed. They became our motivation. We filmed for a little over three years. Once we’d met their families and heard their stories we were completely obsessed – like reading a good book you can’t put down. We had an enormous desire to succeed and to see them succeed.
Cinematical: Did you actually spend a lot of time with the boys and their families?
Rachel: Yes, we spent hundreds of hours with them, we grew very close to them; we’re still very close to them. We stay in touch with all of them. I’m very grateful to them for schooling me.
Cinematical: How did they do that?
Rachel: In the way they handle their lives. They live in ways that middle class America would consider rife with problems, but they have a joy and a hardiness – I didn’t hear any of them complain about being poor or impoverished. You see middle class kids - the way I grew up - and you hear people bitching all the time. And it made me think: what kind of reality am I living in? Things happened to them while I was filming that were so heartbreaking and disappointing and unfair.
The school closed, which to me was a double cruelty – these kids are born into poverty, have little options, and then were given an opportunity and had it snatched away – it was like lightning striking twice; I was much more devastated than they were, they are used to being lied to and disappointed. I think it’s sad they accept disappointment so easily, that the bar is set so low for them, but they were looking at me like “grow up”. They were so incredibly resilient about it – but also they’re just incredibly funny and human and have big hearts. They’re not so downtrodden they don’t care anymore, but they don’t feel sorry for themselves.
I really got to spend time in that other America that people got a glimpse at when New Orleans was submerged under
water. Millions of people here are living in abject poverty, in conditions as bad as in third world countries. Spending
three years in that environment, it made me feel my own life more.
Cinematical: Was it your intention initially to promote the school, or to focus on the boys chosen in a given year?
Rachel: It was never going to be a film promoting the school – we were not making a recruiting video for Baraka School, and they knew that. They didn’t have creative control. We make that totally clear with any of our films. But the film definitely changed. It became a film about reality - the truth about what happens to poor kids in America and what end of the stick they get. The film became more relevant. I didn’t want the audience to leave and think, “That was cute. Those kids should be okay now.”
Cinematical: The school closed after the first year, and the families were told when the boys were home for summer break they wouldn’t get to go back for the second year. Why didn't they just move the school to another location and keep it open?
Rachel: The school was funded by the public school system and a foundation – a trust that was set up. They said they were closing the school down because it wasn’t safe for the kids. However, the fact that they didn’t do anything with those kids, that they totally dumped them – look, it was a financial choice. They didn’t feel like paying for the school anymore, or they used it on something else. And by the way – the embassy was closed for less than a week. I think the fact the embassy reopened in less than a week says it all.
Cinematical: Were you excited when you heard the film was on the Oscar shortlist?
Rachel: I was actually in Baltimore at the time doing press stuff for the film, I was in a car with Devon Brown (the preacher kid). He’s so into the film and how it’s doing. He calls me every other day now to ask me if we made the Oscars, and I keep reminding him it’s not until January 31, Devon. He was so excited we nearly had a wreck. I was driving when Heidi called to tell me, and he jumped in my lap; he wanted to call his grandmother, my grandmother, everyone.
Cinematical: What’s the message of your film?
Rachel: For me it’s the hypocrisy of America – we’re told you can do anything, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can be what you want, but we aren’t told that there’s this whole population of kids who are told “except for you – you don’t deserve anything” and it gets engrained in these kids.
Why do poverty lines exist along race lines? It’s always been frustrating to me but when I saw it happening to these kids I’d come to love, I wanted to kill someone; to see these kids grow and change and have so much confidence and then to throw them back into the pit and tell them you’re dreaming, you have no chance. If you’re lucky you won’t go to jail. It felt like an insult every time I was in that environment. School is supposed to be an environment where you learn how to think, to be an individual, to learn to think critically.
Cinematical: Do you still see the boys?
Rachel: We still go back and spend time with them – I spent Christmas with Richard. Richard and Romesh don’t really talk to each other now because of regular sibling rivalry; the environment they lived in gets really intense. Neither of them live with their mother anymore. Richard, who’s 16, is living at Job Corps federal program for kids who have dropped out of school and don’t have anywhere to live. They will help him get a GED and get job training. Richard really loves it and is happy to have a structure. Romesh is 15, all the info I have on him is from Richard. Richard told me Romesh is not going to school, that he’s living with a friend, he’s not talking to Richard. I'm trying to track Romesh down, I know the area his friends hang in, and I'm going to go down to Baltimore and try to find him.
I learned a lot from Richard and Romesh’s mom too. She grew up in foster care, her mother was murdered, she had her first kid at 18 and never graduated high school. These cycles, it’s hard to break out of, and a lot of it is just incredibly bad luck. I think that people don’t realize the success they have or the lifestyle they lead, the lives they have – that there’s a legacy for it, and that legacy is who they’re born to. And I think the movie shows that. With just a little attention and a little effort, one of the kids (Montrey) revealed himself to be a math genius. No one had ever told him he was smart. We take it so much for granted; there’s an entitlement we don’t even know we have, it’s just engrained.
I’d never been exposed to that. When someone you love and care about is a part of that America it becomes very real to you.